Five years after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that dog owners cannot recover emotion-based damages over the loss of their pets, another state appellate court has determined that such plaintiffs also can’t recover attorney fees.
In Palfreyman v. Gaconnet, Houston’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals focused on § 38.001 (6) of the Texas Civil Practices & Remedies Code, an obscure law that allows people to recover attorney fees if their claim concerns “killed or injured stock.”
According to the decision, Rita Palfreyman sued Becky Gaconnet, the owner of a dog-boarding business, for negligence after her two Yorkies, Ricco and Warwick, died while at Gaconnet’s facility. Palfreyman also moved to recover attorney fees under § 38.001 (6).
Palfreyman seemingly had little chance of a significant recovery in the case because of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Strickland v. Medlen, which determined that plaintiffs could recover only for the property value of a dog. “Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings,” the court wrote in that decision.
In Palfreyman’s case, the trial court eventually awarded her $900 dollars for the loss of the dogs but denied any recovery of the $7,000 in attorney fees she claimed to have spent prosecuting her suit.
Palfreyman appealed the decision to the Fourteenth Court, arguing that attorney fees are recoverable for the loss of her dogs because the animals constituted “stock” under § 38.001 (6).
In its decision, the Fourteenth Court noted that the use of the term “stock” in Texas law is scant. The term “livestock” has been used to define animals such as cattle, sheep, swine, goats and poultry raised for human consumption, and to define horses and donkeys raised under agriculture practices, according to the decision.
But the court ultimately declined to expand the definition of “stock” to include dogs.
“We conclude the term ‘stock’ in section 38.001 (6) does not include pet dogs,” wrote Justice Martha Hill Jamison. “Accordingly, Palfreyman was not entitled to attorney’s fees pursuant to section 38.001 (6).”
Savannah Robinson, a Danbury attorney who represents Palfreyman, was disappointed the court declined her client’s attempt to recover attorney fees.
“It’s a novel idea. If you’re not going to give people fair value for their pets, you ought to at least give them attorney fees for pursing some kind of recovery,” Robinson said. “In our case, the people who killed her dogs didn’t tell her how they died and they had to file suit to find out. It’s just grossly unfair that people can kill your pet and not tell you want happened.”
Robinson said the Yorkies belonged to both Palfreyman and her late husband.
“These dogs were their entire families. If you ever see an older person with a dog, they sit with them and stay with them, and they sometimes keep them from going into dementia,” Robinson said. “They have value, and that needs to be recognized.”
Mark B. Jones, an Angleton attorney who represents Gaconnet, said Palfreyman’s Yorkies were likely killed at his client’s facility after they escaped from their cage and came in contact with Gaconnet’s American Staffordshire Terriers. Jones also said there was no way for his client to determine exactly what happened because she was not at the facility at the time the Yorkies died.
Jones believes the Fourteenth Court’s decision, combined with the Supreme Court’s decision in Medlen, will impact other cases in which plaintiffs attempt to recover for the loss of companionship or therapy dogs.
“This cuts out an avenue of plaintiff’s attorneys getting their attorney fees by saying ‘at least we can call them stock.’” Jones said. “It will keep them from circumventing the statute and filing frivolous lawsuits until the Legislature changes the law.”
Jones said he’s sympathetic to people who lose their dogs.
“I have two dogs who come to the office with me every day, so I understand how people feel about their dogs,’’ he said.